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Exactly What Is A Meaningful Summer in College Admissions?

Original post made by Elizabeth LaScala on May 16, 2011

A Danville resident asks: What exactly is a "meaningful" summer? I have heard this phrase so often, but without any real details. What should high school age children plan to do over the summers and does it really influence their college applications?

Dr. LaScala responds:

College counselors, college admissions officers and everyone in between has an opinion about what constitutes a meaningful summer for high school students. I am happy to add my opinion to the mix.
On both the Common Application, the University of California application and many unique college applications there is a section to list and/or describe your accomplishments, including summer activities. If it is on the application, it is safe to assume that it is important in the admissions process. Admission departments do not create unnecessary work for themselves and do review each part of the application.

I encourage students to focus on depth rather than breadth. Students should pursue two or three interesting activities both in and outside the school environment. Students should be looking for opportunities to pursue that they find both exciting and challenging. These can be projects, activities, employment or even college-level coursework not readily available during the regular high school year.

Younger students are still forming their interests and parents should grant wide breadth to wholesome activities they choose to do. For example, a student may want to volunteer for an animal rescue foundation over the summer, but may show little or no interest in becoming a veterinarian. And that should be encouraged. Everything a student does should not be judged as good or bad depending on whether it fits an adult's idea of 'meaningful' or career-focused. On the other hand, an older student who believes she wants to go pre-med should demonstrate an active interest in clinical medicine by volunteering or finding an internship at a hospital, medical clinic or public health department. Shadowing health professionals and documenting your experiences is also a worthwhile enterprise, especially if you formalize the process in some way and circulate it to younger students who are considering medical careers (e.g. PowerPoint presentation to younger students at your high school through college and career office).
It is important to understand that you do not have to travel or spend a ton of money for your summer to have an impact. Here is a list of possibilities:

On-line courses. I had one student last year who was on a tight budget. She enrolled in an inexpensive on-line design course and was guided through the creation of a 3-dimensional model of a bedroom (complete with furnishings, complementary fabrics, window treatments, rugs, the works). Her summer project became part of her portfolio and she was successfully offered admission to several excellent architectural programs.

Employment. This is an often underrated experience that is highly valued by admission offices. Students learn many vital life lessons when they work and sometimes gain valuable leadership experience—especially if they can continue the job into the high school year. I had one student who held down a part-time hostess job all last year and received a promotion to lead hostess for the summer months. Her new position required that she train new employees, often individuals older than herself. This is impressive to colleges.

Internships. Internships are tremendous opportunities for students to build specific skill sets and gain valuable experience in a field they want to explore more fully. There are many summer math, science, computer science and engineering programs to choose from and costs vary greatly. It is best to get an early start researching these opportunities as many more selective programs have April and May deadlines. Another bonus of applying to more selective internships is that the application is similar to the college application (many selective intern programs require two teacher letters of recommendation, school transcript, test scores and a personal essay) An 11th grader who completes this type of application process often has an amazing head start on the college application cycle. High school students who get a later start on summer plans should not despair; each week I hear about another great opportunity a student finds by exercising due diligence with a deadline still in the future.

Community Service. Time is more plentiful during the summer and students who are drawn to volunteerism can expand this interest over the break. I have had students initiate and complete truly inspiring volunteer projects over the summer months. It is best if the project is planned well in advance and executed over the summer. It is also best if something lasting can be achieved for the non-profit organization where the student volunteers.

Teen Tours and Travel: Frankly, I find most of these programs exorbitantly expensive. But they can be a terrific investment if you keep in mind that the experience needs to be transforming in some way (like language and cultural immersion) or otherwise special (like a strong community service component).

College Research and Visits. Summer is a perfect time to develop a balanced list of good fit colleges and explore each college fully. You can research colleges carefully at home and, if possible, plan to visit a few in order to develop an appreciation of the differences among institutions (e.g. large research university versus smaller liberal arts colleges).

Good luck and have a "meaningful" summer break!

Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and certified college admission advisor. Her goal is to help freshman applicants as well as transfer students and their families understand the admissions process, research college and career options, create a balanced college list and submit strong and cohesive applications. She is familiar with local high schools and has guided three daughters through the college admissions process in addition to more than 300 clients. Dr. LaScala is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, and HECA and earned a certification in College Admissions and Career Planning from University of California at Berkeley. Contact her at (925) 891-4491 or elizabeth@doingcollege.com.

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